On Saturday, July 13th, I spent most of the day silently lamenting the fact that I had missed out on going to the Albany Pride Parade. The Berkshire Bach Ensemble was making its debut in the Catskills. The famous harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper would direct the Ensemble, which he founded, and world class musicians would take the tiny stage. There was a box office to run, a ticket line to answer to, and chores to do before the performance. As I tapped away at my keyboard, typing up an important interview, the sounds of strings drifted up the stairs and under my office door. Sure, the Ensemble sounded beautiful, but was this really worth missing the rainbows of Albany Pride? All of my doubts dissipated after I closed the box office and took my seat. Boy was I in for a show.
I have always been fascinated with music. I’ve been in band, chorus, drum and bugle corps, advanced band, jazz choir, and more – live music somehow finds its way straight to my soul – but my high school didn’t have an orchestra, so I was never very familiar with the string instruments. Really all I knew about classical string arrangements was what I learned in elementary school, and almost nobody comes out of that liking what they learned. I didn’t mind the music, but didn’t find it to be anything special. At this point, I encourage you to forget everything you’ve been forced to listen to in school. Clear away all the bitter memory of required curriculum and make room for the wonder that is the Berkshire Bach Ensemble.
The evening began with Samson: Overture, by George Frederic Handel. I cannot speak to how this one went, since I was busy closing up the box office, but I managed to seat myself in time to hear all of Montevertigo, a suite of four madrigals, composed by Claudio Monteverdi and arranged by Kenneth Cooper. As Cooper explained, Monteverdi wrote wonderful compositions for vocal music, but never wrote anything instrumental. The Berkshire Bach Ensemble was not satisfied with this, and so they performed a refurbished version of four of his madrigals: Zefiro torna, Maledetto sia l’aspetto, Lamento della ninfa, and O rosetta, che rosetta. Cooper humorously explained the meaning of each piece before starting into the suite, setting a lighthearted and fun mood. To put it plainly, I often despise madrigals. I’ve been forced to sing them too many times, and the resulting performances were not incredibly pleasant. The reason I mention this is because it speaks to Cooper’s interpretation of the pieces. I really, really liked what he did. I was aware of small nuances common in madrigals, and still thoroughly enjoyed the pieces despite my history with the form.
Up next was Harpsichord Concerto No. 5 in F minor, which really showcased Cooper’s skill-set. I had never heard a harpsichord live before, and the performance opened my eyes to the beauty of this, the modern piano’s ancestor. It’s no wonder that Cooper is globally recognized; his command of the instrument, as well as the Ensemble, is nothing short of impressive. The harpsichord itself is an incredible thing of antiquity. Reminiscent of crashing cymbals, at certain volumes the harpsichord seems to be more percussive than melodic, which is just as well.
Last but most certainly not least, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Op. 8, followed a brief intermission. Here is where forgetting your general music education comes in – this is not the Vivaldi you knew in third grade. This is Vivaldi portrayed by first violinist Marjorie Bagley, violinist Kristi Helberg, violinist Daniel Khalikov, cellist Alistair MacRae, violist Irena McGuffee, double bassist Peter Weitzner, and of course, harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper. Everyone has heard Vivaldi’s famous pieces at some point in their lives, but you have never truly heard it until you’ve seen it in the Berkshire Bach Ensemble’s capable hands; these musicians from around the world bring a unique sound to the somewhat overplayed classics.
The greatest benefit of attending performances such as these is the chance to witness the performers’ passion. Cooper’s style of conducting while playing is intriguing. He makes it seem that one is just as important as the other, leaving room for emphasis on either when needed. Rising slightly from his bench as he cues an entrance or cuts off a phrase, his unique multitasking really adds to the show. Every instrumentalist feels their music to a certain point, but the members of the Berkshire Bach Ensemble transcend feeling to become. Any onlooker could tell. Swaying with the cadence of their harmonies and melodies, each musician captures the audience in a way only a truly skilled musician can. The intimacy of Weisberg Hall played a large part in connecting the audience to the stage.
I highly recommend that you find out where the Ensemble will be next, because if anything made missing Pride parade worth it, it was them. The Catskill Mountain Foundation is constantly bringing world class performances to the Catskills and right under our noses. Keep an eye on the Foundation; if just a few more people catch on to the caliber of these events, they’ll be selling out quick.